Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Confessions of a Book Dad - Guest Post

Note to readers:  This is OBVIOUSLY a guest post, since I'm not a dad :)  But it is exactly how I feel about my girls and reading too.  I was lucky enough to connect with David Simon through the Summer Author Promo Blitz.  This is my second year participating, and I love the authors I've connected with so far!!  His new book is called Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, and it's a great choice for middle grade readers (and funny too!).  Without further ado, here is David's great post:

I’m a book dad.


I was a book kid and a book teen, on a first name basis with my local librarian, my nose always buried in one crumbling, broken-spined paperback or another. I know many intelligent, successful adults who put away books when they reached adulthood and never looked back. Not me. I kept right on reading, and became a book guy. When it turned out the woman I fell in love with and married was also a reader, it came as no real surprise.


When our son was born, reading to him seemed as natural as feeding and changing him, and just as integral to his proper care. Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar were early favorites. You just can’t go wrong with the classics. Eric was a young reader, also not much of a surprise. He devoured Magic Treehouse and Boxcar Children books, inhaled Goosebumps and Hardy Boys. We took turns reading the first Harry Potter book to him, a chapter each night, completely enthralled. My wife and I made a pact not to read ahead. I admit here, for the first time, that I sometimes cheated. Eric read the second Potter book by himself, and the die was cast. He was a book kid.


My daughter Hannah, born two years after Eric, not so much. She loved being read to, but the reading bug never really bit her. In a house filled to overflowing with books, she often had trouble finding something that interested her. She was, and is, smart and creative, a wonderful writer and musician, but finding a book that demanded her attention was challenging. When it did happen, she read and reread them obsessively. Harry Potter did the trick, as did Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging and its sequels, and the Mates, Dates books. Hunger Games had our entire family reading, in shifts. (By the time Mockingjay came along, we gave up and bought multiple copies for the house.) The same thing happened with The Fault In Our Stars.


Our second daughter, McKenna, is also a reader. She’s 14 now. Her friends and her pass around books like they are sacred objects, from the aforementioned Fault In Our Stars to Divergent and The Mortal Instruments books. They write fan fic, and talk about their favorite characters as if they were real. In a way, the best way, I guess they are.


As a book dad, I love recommending favorites to my kids. Sometimes it’s easy. Eric is 21 now, and we have virtually the same taste in fiction. We buy each other books all the time, and it’s always something we want to read as well. Recent choices include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy and Jo Walton’s Among Others. We have two main points of disagreement. One is e-readers, which I have accepted as a necessary, and convenient, evil, but which he refuses to truck with. I sometimes purchase something on my Kindle I know he desperately wants to read, just to entice him, but so far he’s resisted. The other concerns the subject of rereading, which I rarely do. Too many novels I haven’t yet read, is my position. Eric has reread Ender’s Game and His Dark Materials so many times that he’s had to buy new copies.


Recommending books to my daughters is much more hit and miss. McKenna may be a reader, but at least at the moment, her friend’s picks carry more weight than mine, and she likes what she likes. She currently favors, quote, “Dystopian series with a love interest.” Luckily for her, there are plenty of those floating around. I did score with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black. Hannah is the toughest nut to crack, but when I recommend something she likes, it’s uniquely satisfying. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Lynda Barry’s Cruddy are dark, challenging novels that I love, and that Hannah connected with. I’m hoping to get her to try Geek Love next.


For the record, all three kids have read Trapped In Lunch Lady Land. Without threats, even.


I’m a lot of things, like most people. A husband and father, a graphic designer and illustrator, a published author, a soccer sideline cheerleader. And proudly, a book dad.
David Simon has a new book out, Trapped in Lunch Lady Land.  Check it out of your nearest library, or it is available at bookstores near you!!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Secret of the Stone Frog

We have read so many fascinating, quality books from TOON Books.  It does my heart proud that Gloria particularly is a comic book reader.  I've mentioned before how it will take me awhile to blog about books from TOON.  That is primarily because Gloria steals them from my blog pile to pore over them.  She is a strong reader at 5 1/2, and could read chapter books if she wanted.  But unlike Frances, she's not been interested in tackling chapter books.  While Frances sees chapter books as a sign of being a big kid and a strong reader, Gloria prefers to pull down a large stack of picture books from the bookcase, or catalogs to read.  But she has now finished her first long book, and I am especially pleased that it is a graphic novel.

The Secret of the Stone Frog was sent to me almost two years ago.  It was the very first graphic novel  that TOON had produced.  Let's start with the book design.  It is gorgeous - a rich red with faux binding on the corners and spine.  The frontispiece is slightly inset, and the front cover illustration is done in black and white.  There is a bookplate printed inside the front cover.  The edges of the paper are deckled.  All of this effort together gives an expensive air, but more importantly, it also gives off an old-fashioned feel.  It sets the tone for the book right from the cover.

So then the reader isn't surprised when they meet Leah and Alan, who awaken in beds, under a tree.  Under a tree?  Yes, their beds have appeared under a large tree.  And that isn't the oddest thing that will happen in the course of this book.  In their crisp white pajamas they look around in bewilderment.  As they are trying to decide what to do, a voice intones "If it's a way home you're looking for It's right behind me.  Look no more." (p. 5)  The voice belongs to a stone frog, who gives them more advice: as they travel, they should watch for other stone frogs to ask for help.  And, most importantly, they should stay on the path.

Leah is older, and a little more conscious of the rules.  She is quick to obey the stone frogs, and navigates down the path.  Alan, on the other hand, is young and impetuous enough that his hunger trumps the stone frog's warning.  He convinces Leah that a house they glimpse through the thicket might have food, so off the path they go.  As they approach the house, they stumble into a garden filled with enormouse bees.  Then they meet the beekeeper, a lady dressed in vaguely Victorian attire, but with an absurdly, disproportionately large head.  She seems kind enough, so Alan and Leah follow her into her home.  The beekeeper serves them a fabulous tea, with an assortment of enticing  things to eat.  As Alan and Leah dig in, all thoughts of disobeying the stone frog have disappeared.  And when the beekeeper asks questions of Alan, he obligingly answers.  But as Alan speaks, a bee darts out and begins to carry away his words.  Alan is struck dumb, as Leah fights the bee to get her brother's words back.  When she stuns the bee, it makes the beekeeper furious.

As Leah and Alan race down the path, trying to outrun the beekeeper and her mob of her angry bees, they swear they won't divert from the path again.  There are a whole host of awesomely odd characters waiting for them off,the path, though, and it's where all the fun is.  They discover large rabbits and fish waiting for a train.  The ordinary and extraordinary are all jumbled together in one big adventure.

At the same time as I was reading The Secret of the Stone Frog I was reading a book of critical essays on children's literature called Only Connect.  In an essay by Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., I found this quote: "Effective imaginative literature is an amalgam of the new and strange - what taxes credulity and complacency - with what is somehow believable, authentic, and immediate." (p. 47)  This quote really struck me as applicable to this graphic novel.  This is why waking up under a tree isn't very surprising to Leah and Alan.  They begin to solve the problem of how to get home, but never stop to ask how they actually got under that tree.  There is that combination of the strange and the believable here.  After all, the children did wake up in their own beds.  Another example of this are the fish waiting for the train in the station.  There is an enormous disparity in the fish, eager to go home.  Again, Victorian style is a commonality, but there are short fish, tall fish, fish in cravats, fish with bow ties.  And I'm sure you could superimpose this picture onto a picture of commuters in any big city, and they would look very similar.  The waiting behavior (eyes straight ahead or slightly raised, arms at sides, near each other but not touching) will be recognizable to children.  The odd-looking fish are the mystery here.

I'm sure you may be drawing parallels to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as I did while reading.  Like Alice, Leah and Alan are forced to negotiate foreign rules and cultural norms while on their quest to return home.  They both get into trouble when they go off the proscribed path.  The weird and familiar are all intermingled in both books, along with a dream-like quality to the adventure.  And both adventures are bookended by sleep.

This adventure eventually has a happy ending, but one of the things that Alan is trying to understand throughout their adventure is that it has been decided that Leah will be moving out of the nursery and into her own room.  It is one of those transitions of childhood, and could serve to make Leah and Alan more disconnected than they are now.  During the story, they are wound closely together physically - one always has their arm around the other, or Alan will hide behind Leah's nightgown.  The transition to a new, grown-up room for Leah reminds me of Wendy in another classic novel, Peter Pan, where the transition out of the nursery is inevitable but mourned by all involved.

The illustrations at time reminded me of Tenniel's illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The beekeeper, with her indignant expression and overly large head, reminds me of the Queen of Hearts.  Nytra's style is very detailed and specific, with lots of background crosshatching.  All of the crosshatching gives texture to each panel.  It adds to the gloom and opressive feel of each page as the children wind along another unfamiliar path.  The children are dressed in pure white pajamas to help draw the reader's eye towards the children in every panel.  Every character's facial expressions are easily discernable, helping children interpret the mood of the story.

While this is billed as a graphic novel,  that does not mean that the text is novel-length.  There are not very many panels with more than a sentence of text.  Confident younger readers will enjoy this adventure just as much as older children.  Gloria said that this book was "really weird but awesome" and she's right.  The fantasy in this story will appeal to older readers, but younger readers will love it too.  I'm not sure even I have made sense of it, even after repeated readings.  I love that about this book.  Readers will continue to make connections to it long after they've closed its sumptuous covers.

The Secret of the Stone Frog.  David Nytra.  TOON Books, 2012.
"Children's Reading and Adults' Values."  Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr.  Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature.  2nd ed.  Oxford University Press, 1980 (p. 39-54).

The Secret of the Stone Frog was sent by the publisher by request.  Only Connect is from my personal library.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

48 Hour Book Challenge Finish Line

As happened last year, I didn't quite meet my goal. Today I didn't keep track, because I could tell from almost the beginning of the day that I wasn't going to meet my goal.  So I probably got about 11 hours in total.  I was doing great until I got up this morning.  Then all of the multitude of chores and a couple of under the weather kids brought my day to a screeching halt.  Another thing that didn't help me at all was that after the two books I finished, I had a hard time reading much of anything else.  I dipped into an essay in Only Connect: Readings in Children's Literature and read more of How to Eat a Small Country, but because both were nonfiction, it was a lot harder going than the fiction had been.  Next year, I will try to read Friday and Saturday and take Sunday as a day to get focused on the week, since this has been a problem for me both years.  But it's been a lot of fun, and I read a lot more than I do on any other weekend, which makes it great too!!!  Usually on Sundays I might read a magazine or two, but not much else, so I feel accomplished no matter what.


Another book completed last night in the 48 Hour Book Challenge!  Yay!  I read four hours Friday night, and another five and a half hours last night, which brings me up to 9 1/2 hours total.  I am going to try to finish reading this morning so I can get some other stuff done.  Besides which I have gotten some stuff read out of my TBR pile, which is always exciting!  I was sent Smoke by Simon & Schuster around Banned Books Week.  I of course had to read Burned first, so I could find out how the story began.  I liked Smoke a lot - it covers a lot of territory in a surprising way.  At the end of Burned, Pattyn Von Stratten was looking for revenge after the death of her true love and her unborn baby.  This book picks up just after that book ends, with the death of her father and Pattyn's escape.  Pattyn kills her father when she finds him beating her sister Jackie after Jackie is raped.  This sounds overwhelming, and it is.  Pattyn and Jackie deal with the murder in very different ways - while Pattyn leaves, Jackie must stay with the rest of her family and cope with the consequences.  Both girls heal and find love again, but it is the journey that is more interesting.  Pattyn's journey includes a migrant worker community and horses, Jackie's journey includes a confident, smart boy who has two moms.  This will speak to many high schoolers, just as the first one did.  I'll be doing a longer blog post on both books later on.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Crown of Columbus

I just finished The Crown of Columbus.  I had read it quite a few years ago (I'm sure more than 15 years ago!), and I couldn't remember more than that I had liked it a lot.  I am reading it this time as part of my ongoing quest to read all of Louise Erdrich's books.  I first started this project here, when I read Grandmother's Pigeon and then The Range Eternal.  Since then, I've been reading some of her adult novels in chronological order.  This time, I found The Crown of Columbus completely absorbing again.  I couldn't stop reading it and carrying it around.  The juxtaposition of voices in it was mesmerizing.  I liked Vivian's voice better than Roger's, but I suspect that was his personality at first too.  This is historical fiction, romance, and mystery all wrapped up in one, and it is an amazing story.  The ending is what I expected, and yet not.  I found myself caught up in the rhythms of the poetry and prose.  A great, great story, and so different from some of Erdrich's other work.

The Crown of Columbus.  Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich.  Harper Perennial, 1991.

48 Hour Book Challenge Update

So here I am on day two.  So far, I read and reviewed four hours last night.  I am just (at 11am!) sitting down to more reading, which is interspersed with dropping Frances off at a birthday party and Gloria's soccer game.  Hoping to get another chunk of time in the afternoon.  My current read is The Crown of Columbus by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.  It's my second time through the book, and I am loving it just as much as I did the first time.  Hope everyone else participating is having as much fun as I am!!

Friday, June 6, 2014

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

I have been a huge Jenny Han fan since The Summer I Turned Pretty came out in 2009.  You shouldn't be surprised by that information, since I just reviewed Burn for Burn and Fire  with Fire here and I already said how excited I was to read Ashes for Ashes.  So I shrieked out loud when I walked out my front door one morning, and discovered a package from Simon & Schuster.  The padded envelope contained the ARC of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, along with a notebook and pen.  I love getting publishing swag, and the fact that it was Jenny Han swag just made it that much better.  I started reading right away (with the Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson duet stuck in my head, unfortunately).  I saved my review to post once the book was published.  Now the book is out so you can all run out and get it.  It is also a great choice to kick off my contribution for #weneeddiversebooks within the 48 Hour Book Challenge, so I am thrilled to be talking about it tonight.

Lara Jean Song is a romantic at heart.  She is the middle sister - there is an older sister, Margot, and a younger sister, Kitty.  Their doctor father has raised them alone since their mother died when Lara Jean was ten.  The sisters are sometimes called "the Song girls" - their mother (who was Korean)'s last name was Song, and "we all have Song for our middle name, and we look more Song than Covey anyway, more Korean than white." (p. 9)  Margot grew up quickly when their mom died, and runs the household most of the time.  Their father is an OB/GYN, and is unpredictable in his schedule, so the girls rely on each other.  Lara Jean and Kitty are used to Margot caring for them and keeping their lives organized.  Now Margot is going abroad to Scotland for college, and Lara Jean already misses her tremendously.  On the other hand, she is also determined to show Margot how successfully the rest of the family can survive when she's gone.  Right before Margot leaves, she breaks up with her boyfriend, Josh.  Lara Jean has spent lots of time with Margot and Josh (he is their neighbor too).  While she doesn't understand why Margot broke up with Josh, she has kept  a secret for a long time.  Lara Jean has always been in love with Josh too.

Lara Jean has a ritual for ending her crushes on guys - she writes them one last letter.  "They're not love letters in the strictest sense of the word.  My letters are for when I don't want to be in love anymore.  They're for good-bye.  Because after I write my letter, I'm no longer consumed by my all-consuming love....If love is like a possession, maybe my letters are like my exorcisms.  My letters set me free.  Or at least they are supposed to." (unpaged)  She has kept these letters in a hatbox, and there are five of them, the latest one to Josh.  So in the first week of school, Lara Jean is shocked when one of the popular crowd, Peter Kavinsky, tells her he wants to talk to her.  He says a letter was mailed to his house.  She can't figure out how this might have happened, and Lara Jean is mortified.  Because if Peter got his, then Josh did too.  And that means he knows how she feels about him still.  Even though he has belonged to Margot all along.

When Josh tries to talk to Lara Jean about the letter, she panics.  She sees Peter (who has just broken up with his girlfriend Gen) in the hall, and runs up and kisses him, in an effort to convince Josh that she doesn't like him at all.  Afterwards, Pete and Lara Jean decide to fake a relationship to make both Gen and Josh jealous.  It seems to be working.  At the same time, Josh is trying to figure out where he fits, both at school and in the Covey family, without Margot there.  And he's considering Lara Jean with new eyes, now that he knows that she liked him too.

While this book is created with some of my favorites subjects in mind - school and romance, it also has a strong sense of family and sisterhood, something I relate to very much.  You know I see the sister relationship in Frances and Gloria these days.  I've also written here about my relationship with my own sister previously.  My relationship with my sister is one of the most important things in my life, and it is quite often the lens through which I see myself.

This is also true of Lara Jean.  She always sees herself in relation to Margot, and Margot is a typical oldest sister.  On top of that Margot feels very responsible for her sisters, and takes care of most things for Kitty and Lara Jean.  The first time Lara Jean drives after Margot leaves for Scotland, she admits that her directional skills are under-developedc: "I've never had to know how to get to the mall, because Margot always drove us there. But now I have to do better, because I'm responsible for driving Kitty around." (p.33)  That is a perfect middle sister quote if I've ever heard one.  At the beginning of the novel, Lara Jean is bookended by her two sisters.  I've described Margot, and Kitty is demanding, slightly devious, and a little spoiled. Kitty is cute, Margot is smart.  There is nothing about Lara Jean that makes her stand out from her sisters when Margot leaves.  She doesn't actually want to stand out - Lara Jean is perfectly content to be one of "the Song girls".

When Margot goes away to college, all three sisters are forced to rethink their relationships to each other, rethink the definitions they comfortably fell into in the past few years.  For instance, Lara Jean and Margot have always babied Kitty and taken care of her every need.  "After Mommy died, we all had to realign ourselves.  Everybody had new roles.  Margot and I were no longer locked in battle, because we both understood that Kitty was ours to take care of now." (p. 338-9)  But with Margot gone, Lara Jean begins teaching Kitty some of the chores she had done with Margot previously.  They had always just done them, and shielded Kitty from having to do any chores.  Kitty becomes more independent as Lara Jean begins doing more with Peter and his friends, and it is a good thing.

Even from Scotland, Margot has been protecting her sisters.  She doesn't want them to know how unsure she is in her new environment, how lost and homesick she feels.  When Margot arrives home for Christmas break, Lara Jean realizes how much things have changed: "Is this how people lose touch?  I didn't think that could happen with sisters.  Maybe with other people, but never with us.  Before Margot left, I knew what she was thinking without having to ask; I knew everything about her.  Not anymore." (p. 294)  This really resonated with me.  I, too, went away to college, although not as far.  But I know how it feels to see the change in your family from the outside and not be able to find your comfortable place in your family again when you return.  You've changed.  They've changed.  Margot finally says to Lara Jean "'But then I left, and it's like you didn't need me as much as I thought.'  Her voice breaks. 'You were fine without me.'" (p. 344)  I have been in Margot's shoes and I know how she feels.  But what I hadn't considered was Lara Jean's perspective as the younger sister.  Lara Jean retorts "'Only because you taught me everything!'" (p. 344)  It is a watershed moment for the girls as they see their relationship anew.

I haven't talked much about the romance at the heart of this book, which is unusual for me.  But I will say this - I did love the romance here.  I was surprised at how much I rooted for Lara Jean and wanted her to realize the potential of what she might have as her relationships change.  She's never seen herself outside of her sisters before, and she has something to offer.  To me, this book is so much more about the sisters and how they change, but it is a fun look at romance too.

These sisters can weather anything together, and I love their friendship.  It was a great moment in my life when my sister and I became friends besides being sisters, and the Song girls need each other's friendship even more than they realize.  Jenny Han has scored another winner.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before.  Jenny Han.  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014.

ARC sent to me by the publisher for review